Founded in 2008 as a domestic tour operator, Viet Media Travel Corporation says two-thirds of its customers are now Vietnamese tourists traveling abroad.
“People are flocking to countries like Thailand and Japan,” said Tran Van Long, general director of the Ho Chi Minh City-based company.
He said after the 2009 global recession, many countries ramped up support for tourism to boost their sagging economies.
“And Vietnam, with a population of around 90 million, has been one of their target visitor markets," Long said.
“For example, a tour to Japan now costs between VND20 million (US$891) and VND30 million (US$1,347). That is significantly cheaper than VND40 million in 2013,” said Long, who chairs the Japan tourism club in southern Vietnam.
Late last year Japan also simplified visa acquisition procedures for Vietnamese participants of tours offered by the travel agencies endorsed by the Japanese government.
The results were almost instant: nearly 120,000 Vietnamese visited Japan in 2014, a 50% year-on-year jump, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.
|People row canoes past cherry blossoms trees in full bloom in Tokyo, Japan on March 29, 2015. Photo: AFP
In the first nine months of this year the number of Vietnamese tourists visiting Japan reached an all-time high of 139,000, up 53% from the same period last year. That put Vietnam ahead of most European countries.
Unlike Viet Media Travel, some other top tourist companies in Vietnam are still receiving more bookings for domestic tours, but overseas tours have grown faster.
Vietravel sold domestic tours to 280,000 people in the first ten months of this year, a year-on-year increase of 20%. The company had 147,000 outbound tourists, up 50%.
At Saigontourist, outbound tourists were up 40% year-on-year in the first ten months while the number of domestic tourists was up 30%, Doan Thi Thanh Tra, its marketing and communications director, said.
Both companies said that Thailand, Japan, the Republic of Korea (RoK), Europe and the US were among the most attractive destinations.
Tran Thi Bao Thu, marketing and communications director of Fiditour, said the number of customers booking tours to those countries were up 32% year-on-year in the first ten months, similar to the growth rate of domestic tourism.
Last month a delegation of the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau came to Vietnam for the first time. They spent two days in Ho Chi Minh City meeting local tourist companies and media as well as running an exhibition to promote travel to the French capital city.
Patricia Barthélemy, a marketing manager at the bureau, said that her delegation “may come back to Vietnam and visit Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi next September.”
Around 22,000 Vietnamese went to France last year, 54 of them traveling for tourism purposes, according to French authorities.
Since economic reforms were launched in 1986, Vietnam has turned from one of the poorest in the world, with a per capita income of around US$100, into a lower middle income economy with an income of more than US$2,000.
Vaughan Ryan, CEO of Nielsen Vietnam, said Vietnamese people no longer lived day to day. Now they live for the future and their aspirations.
“Vietnam’s emerging middle class continues to grow. People start to think: ‘Well, I’ve got spare money now... How can I start buying stuff for me?' he said.
Ryan said more consumers now save money for big-ticket items, including cars, apartments and holidays.
This is part of a changing consumer culture, he said.
“Historically they used to share their money with mom and dad. The money went to a pool of fund which would pay for food and drink and the basics,” said Ryan.
“While family values still exist, people are spending more money and time for themselves,” he said.
A recent Nielsen survey showed that 42% of Vietnamese plan to spend their spare cash on holidays and vacations while the global average rate is 38%.
Of course not everyone can grab a ticket to travel overseas. Or at least not yet.
A seven-day trip to the US still costs VND59 million (US$2,655) per person and an eight-day trip to France and Italy costs VND65 million (US$2,925), much higher than the annual income of most households.
But there is no denying that Vietnamese are traveling more. The trend is that people choose domestic trips first, then travel to neighboring countries in the Southeast Asia region, before visiting further and more expensive destinations such as Japan, RoK, Europe and the US.
Industry insiders have pointed out a problem in this trend: Vietnam is allowing other countries to steal its own tourists, especially those with high disposable income.
Long of Viet Media Travel said many go to local beaches just for a short trip and prefer traveling to foreign countries for longer vacations during which they will spend a lot more.
“This is because domestic tour prices are relatively high, services quality isn’t really good and crime is still an issue,” said Long.
He said since 2009, trips to overseas destinations have become 20% to 50% cheaper. In Vietnam, the price reduction has been around 10% or less.
Tourism authorities seem to think that local people automatically know about local tourist spots and will keep visiting them again and again, even though that is not the case, Long said.
Doan Thi Thanh Tra, marketing and communications director at Saigontourist, said apart from growing income and competitive tour prices, there is another reason that many Vietnamese prefer traveling abroad.
“More and more families are sending their children to overseas countries for study, so they travel there to visit their children and take a vacation together,” said Tra.
"Some families even choose a different country to travel each holiday,” said Tra. "Because they are rich."